By Ken Stone
Four decades ago, Richard Spencer was a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter pilot, based for five years at Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana (later named Tustin).Tuesday, he returned to Southern California as the nation’s top civilian leader of the Navy and Marines.
In a visit to San Diego, Spencer said the Navy is throwing a wide net to solve its crisis of ship collisions, which have cost at least 17 lives. It’s even tapping retired officers and private companies for cures.
Newly minted Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer went on a whirlwind tour Tuesday of bases and contractors.
“We’re getting some graybeards involved. We’re getting the private sector involved,” the former Wall Street exec said after a tour of the new USS Gabrielle Giffords. “And [we’re] doing a comprehensive review on how we operate — top to bottom.”
He said the Navy had a “60-day window” to discover the roots of the western Pacific tragedies involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. The search for answers includes a “red group” challenge team.
“This group will have people from industry who have safety situations similar to ours who can share their best practices with us,” Spencer told a news conference on the concrete pier. “So we can find root-cause corrections. This is about a learning cycle that we’re going to go through right now.”
He called the status quo “unacceptable.”
Spencer, 63, was sworn in Aug. 3 — President Trump’s second choice for the job. (The first, Philip Bilden, bowed out after deciding he couldn’t afford the financial divestment rules.)
A six-year member of the Defense Business Board, the Wyoming resident in 2010 pushed the idea of closing 179 domestic-base commissaries and bringing in retailers like Walmart or Costco. But that fell apart when chains and suppliers balked.
Spencer’s list of corporate and nonprofit connections is long, and news reports said he didn’t immediately complete his paperwork.
But when asked if he was certified as clear of conflicts of interest, he said: “The Office of Government Ethics wouldn’t allow me to be in this position unless they vetted me.”
In a 9-minute address and Q&A session, Spencer stood in the sea-breeze-cooled mission bay of the littoral combat ship Giffords and gave a talk meant to preserve the crew as much as motivate it.
“You are the most important and expensive asset we have,” he told them, standing in formation in camouflage working uniforms. “We have to make sure that we are providing you with the environment and the challenges …. working on bleeding-edge technologies.”
He cited “all these opportunities and possibilities” to a service career after being greeted by ship Cmdr. Kevin Meehan, who gave him his own Giffords ball cap.
Watched by Rep. Scott Peters — the only politician to board the Giffords — Spencer praised the men and women standing near him as “the experts that you are.”
- Photo gallery: Navy Secretary in San Diego Eyes ‘Graybeards’ to Solve Collision Crisis, Young Brains for ‘Tech Gap’
“We’re going to listen. We have to listen,” Spencer told the crew of “an amazingly capable ship. You all are going to make it that much more capable with the multiplier effect.”
But Spencer also spoke to Capitol Hill and U.S. citizens: “If I had a message to the American taxpayer, I’d like them to pay attention to the Budget Control Act [of 2011], which has really wreaked havoc on the military [for its sequestration cuts].”
Peters agreed, telling reporters “this meat-axe approach to budget makes no sense.” Of Spencer, he said: “He seems to be thinking about the right stuff. … I’m looking forward to working with him.”
He’s gotten hope on the Hill, Spencer told about two-dozen media members.
“I was very impressed with those on the Armed Services Committee and the appropriations folks who are all leaning in,” he said. “We have the stars aligned. … I look at Congress as my board of directors. I’m going to be completely transparent with them and tell them exactly what’s going on.”
He said work is needed to “get the resources necessary to provide the quality of life and the readiness for our services.”
And readiness includes “the ability to recharge” after deployment — which he says he hopes to address for the sake of retaining sailors and Marines.He called the military’s retirement system — which he helped draft as chair of a task force on its modernization — “a step in the right direction” that’s sustainable and “allows for flexibility as we go into this new generation of how we’re going to staff and man the Navy and the Marine Corps.”
He says he’s heard the criticism — that a sailor or Marine would be able to get out after five years when they vest.
“My response to that is … Game on for us,” he said. “We have to make it worthwhile for that person to stay in the service. We’re on our game to compete against the private sector.”
Spencer was less gung-ho when asked what he’d tell transgender service members.
He said he’d tell them the same thing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford has stated: “We’re going to take guidance from the president….. But now we’re going to develop a policy. We’re going to socialize that policy. And when that policy comes out of DOD, the service secretaries will march forward smartly on that policy.”
Did he agree with it — or have input into the president’s guidance?
“The policy hasn’t been developed yet,” Spencer said, “so I can’t comment on it.”
Before he arrived at the Giffords around 10:30 a.m., Spencer visited Balboa Naval Hospital, the sprawling SPAWAR complex and the shipbuilder General Dynamics NASSCO. He later was set to go on a Mark VI patrol boat tour, seeing the Naval Amphibious Base and the Naval Special Warfare Center (SEALs, etc.) in Coronado.Before traveling north to Camp Pendleton, where he would visit with Marines on Wednesday, Spencer was to take a helicopter overview tour Tuesday afternoon of San Diego naval facilities.
“We’re going to be open to any and all competitors” for that business, he said. “We’ll look at the Coast Guard cutter. We’ll look at foreign-design, U.S.-build opportunities. We’re going to turn over every rock to make sure that we’re going to get the best performance for our dollar.”
Spencer listed Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and ISIS as current threats.
“We’re not at war, because war has to be declared by Congress,” he said, “but I tell you what — we are at combat. And we’re at combat around the globe.”Among his goals is dealing with what he called the technology gap.
“I was over at SPAWARS getting the debrief today, and what they’re working on over there is fascinating,” he said. “There is great hope that we are going to widen the technological gap [with potential foes]. But we have to put the resources and the manpower against it.”
When asked at the end of a 13-minute press conference what kept him up at night, the former Marine captain and helicopter pilot returned to the tech issue.
“Nowadays, everybody has access to technology,” he said. “We have to put the resources, the manpower for an engineer sitting in undergrad school [who] I would love to come around and say: Focus on working for the United States government and come forward to help us find unique solutions. We need all hands on deck to solve this problem.”
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